Two of the Soc101.com posts that receive the most hits involve breaking norms. One reported on an experiment where a group of people drive the speed limit (Drive 55) and the other involves free hugs.

This past week I stumbled across a video by the group Improv Everywhere. I see them as norm breakers extraordinaire. Their motto is “We cause scenes.” What they do is go out on missions (sometimes involving hundreds of participants) and do the unexpected. Through videos, photos, and text, we get to stand back and see what happens.

For example, they describe the mission I stumbled across this week, “Subway Yearbook Photos,” this way:

For our latest mission, we installed a photography studio on a random subway car. We claimed that the MTA had hired us to take photos of every single person who rides the subway and that we’d be producing a yearbook at the end of the year. Most people were happy to pose for us, and the resulting photos show just how diverse New York subway riders can be.

As this video shows, part of what is both fun and interesting is watching how people respond when their daily routine is disrupted. We expect others to abide by taken-for-granted norms, and when they don’t we seek to make sense of what is going on and adapt our behavior accordingly.

Once at their site I also stumbled across an annual mission they run, “The No Pants! Subway Ride.” Part of what’s interesting about this one is that the number of participants has exploded over the years. In 2002 there were just 7 participants. They describe the 2009 mission this way:

The eighth annual No Pants ride had 1,200 participants in New York and well over 1,000 more in 21 other cities across the globe. The New York ride took place during a snow storm (a first) and was carried out on four train lines.

It would be really interesting to know what it is about this mission that attracts so much participation. It is certainly something that most people would not do on their own in a normal day’s activities. (BTW, in 2006, the No Pants ride was halted by the police who cleared the train and took 8 people into custody. The charges were later dropped. That video is available in the above story link and here.)

I’ve actually posted about Improv Everywhere before, reporting on their mission in which they picked out an unknown band making its NYC debut and acted like rabid fans in “The Best Gig Ever.” It is still one of my all-time favorites because it raises questions about what we see as real, how much we can trust others to be honest in their performances, and what happens when we find out we’ve been duped.

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